'It's very difficult,' says Sipekne'katik chief after discovery of 751 unmarked graves in Sask.

·3 min read
Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack says he's hopeful nothing will be found at the former site of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. (Nic Meloney/CBC - image credit)
Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack says he's hopeful nothing will be found at the former site of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. (Nic Meloney/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A First Nations chief expressed hope Friday that no remains will be found at the site of a former residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., after what he described as the "heartbreaking" discovery of 751 unmarked graves in Saskatchewan — the second such finding in four weeks.

Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan has said it's unclear if all the unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School belong to children, and search efforts will continue in the area based off oral history.

"It's very difficult. I couldn't imagine what the trauma is bringing back up in the community and the surrounding areas," Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia told CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax.

The discovery in Saskatchewan comes less than a month after the remains of 215 children were detected at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, which spurred calls for searches at every former residential school site.

Jonathan Fowler
Jonathan Fowler

A search is underway at the former site of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, about 45 minutes northeast of Halifax, which operated between 1929 and 1967. As of Friday, nothing had been detected.

Sack said in a statement that about 10 hectares of land have already been surveyed, but there are two large swaths of land that run down to the river where buildings once stood that still need to be searched.

He expects the search will be completed by the end of next week.

"There's a lot of stories out there and I hear every day that there are going to be some graves found," he said. "But as of right now, there's nothing. So I'm happy [about] that."

Education is key

Michael R. Denny, an educator at Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey in Cape Breton, said the recent discoveries may be retraumatizing for residential school survivors and their families, but it's important for all Canadians to learn the history.

"The Shubenacadie Indian Residential School closed on June 22, 1967 — that wasn't too long ago," Denny, who is also a former support worker for residential school survivors, told Information Morning on Thursday.

"So if we took the time to learn about those little things like that, maybe we'll be better off as Canadians."

Denny said better education would allow First Nations and Canadians to work together to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action, which aim to redress the effects of residential schools.

They are effects that are still being felt within Indigenous communities across Canada, said Sack.

"We just want the best for the people," he said. "I just want it to go away and I don't want our people to have this shadow over us going forward."

He said he's hopeful the discovery of the unmarked graves will allow communities to move forward.

"It's just a horrible time, but I'm glad that it's coming out and it's being acknowledged," he said.

"Hopefully we can give these children a proper send-off and set their spirits free."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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